England happy to talk while they toil
If Saturday's play was a sighter of the troubles to come, then Sunday was a throwback to more desperate days for England. After a facile first half of the summer, in which the West Indians came, were barely noticed, and were duly conquered, India's challenge in this match has come as something of a shock - especially after they were left clinging to the Lord's hover-cover in the first Test last week. Not even a change of umpiring fortunes could haul England back to parity, as India secured a first-innings lead of 283, the highest they have ever managed when batting second in an overseas Test.
For Peter Moores and his new regime it has been a reality check, but a timely one. Moores' international baptism has impressed beyond all expectations since he succeeded Duncan Fletcher after the World Cup. His firm but light touch has been felt in every aspect of the summer so far - the coaching appointments of Allan Donald and Andy Flower, the keynote debuts of Ryan Sidebottom, Matt Prior and latterly Chris Tremlett, and the resurrection of James Anderson as an international cricketer, which in itself is a testament to an improved dialogue between county and country.
But, rather more unexpectedly, the new regime has coincided with an on-field attitude that has at times veered towards the boorish. In the one-day internationals against West Indies, Anderson was fined for shoulder-barging Runako Morton as he marched back to his crease, at Lord's Dinesh Karthik took objection to some chirping from behind the stumps, and today matters reached a crescendo when Zaheer Khan brandished his bat in the direction of Kevin Pietersen, clearly incensed by something that had been said.
On the face of it, none of this matters. Nor indeed is any of it new. No blood has been drawn, no official complaints have been raised and, according to Prior - whose every utterance has been conveyed through the stump microphones - the "spirit of cricket" has not been breached. But the contrast with last summer's visit of England's former bogeymen, Pakistan, is intriguing. Until the brouhaha at The Oval, which was neither instigated nor inflamed by the interaction of the players, the spirit between the sides could not have been better. The same can no longer be said of Anglo-Indian relations. A pattern that was set in motion by Sourav Ganguly and Nasser Hussain five years ago endures to this day.
And for all those players, spectators and pundits who have endured months and months of miserably friction-free cricket, it is a development that is not before time. Even last winter's Ashes lacked the intensity we've witnessed today. At Brisbane, Australia proclaimed their dominance, and England meekly complied thereafter. If England are to go down in this game, it is to be hoped that they go down fighting - it would be a tribute to their opponents, not a slight, because too few contests in the modern-day calendar matter as much as this series now does.
|Forget the pretence that this is a gentleman's game. International sport needs needle. Without it we might as well watch a five-day net session.|
"It's a tough game at the top end and if you don't enjoy it, you're going to struggle," Prior said, while insisting that what is said on the field should remain on the field. "It's never nice when it's you batting, and 11 blokes are giving you a barrage, but it comes with the territory. It's Test cricket, it's a hard game. We all want to win, we're all playing to win. You're going to try anything to get one-up on your opponent, as long as its within the spirit of the game."
Ganguly and Tendulkar were the central figures for much of the day - for the manner of their parting as much as anything - but at the close Ganguly was tight-lipped about what went on during his innings of 79. As well he might be. He's a old pro, who's mixed it with the best in a decade of international cricket. More relevantly, he was never happier than when he was pitting his wits against Hussain's England and Steve Waugh's Australia at the start of the decade. It's probably no coincidence that both he and Tendulkar produced their best international innings for months, if not years, because both men were compelled to switch off their auto-pilots and play with hunger once again.
In a sense, therefore, it could be argued that England's in-your-face attitude was counter-productive because it roused a response from two sleeping giants (or three if you include VVS Laxman). But Prior saw it differently, as indeed did Hussain, who praised the "character" that England had displayed in their bowling. "It's important to have 11 people hunting together on the pitch, creating an intensity and an environment that's uncomfortable for people to bat in," Prior said. "It's even more important on a flat wicket - you might still lose the session, but by holding onto that intensity you might not lose it as heavily."
That was Hussain's mantra during that seminal series in India in 2001-02: "Cling on at all costs, and scrap for every shred of initiative". It's an attitude that has been abundantly absent in recent months, not least on this very ground last summer, when a despicably complacent England team were routed by Muttiah Muralitharan. Kumble is lurking this time and a similar trial by spin awaits, but there's no way that England will surrender without some sort of a fight this time. Amen to that. Forget the pretence that this is a gentleman's game. International sport needs needle. Without it we might as well watch a five-day net session.
Instead, we watched Ryan Sidebottom excel himself in one of the toughest and most luckless bowling spells imaginable. Anderson lost his line and a little bit of his composure while Monty Panesar was off the boil despite his late harvest of wickets, but Sidebottom rang in and bowled with the same channelled discipline that Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff provided for Hussain all those years ago. Arguably Michael Vaughan got a little cute with his field placings - there was no short leg for the new ball, and too many gaps in the slip cordon, particularly when Chris Tremlett found the splice - but England kept toiling away. It's noticeable that not once has their "inexperience" been used as an excuse. Maybe they are too busy chirping in the field to remember they aren't used to days such as these.
England's travails were put into perspective when India's own turn to bowl came late in the day. The swing which caused such devastation on Friday afternoon had evaporated, Sreesanth endured a humiliating mini-session in which his run-up deserted him entirely, and the rest of the seamers resorted to a short-pitched attack to drag Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook out of their comfort zones. Even Kumble was safely repelled in his three-over foray - although he's as likely to remain wicketless as Prior is to bite his tongue. England have not lost a home Test series since 2001; India have hardly won away since 1986. There is more at stake over the next seven days of Test cricket than has been witnessed for months. Don't expect the fireworks to be doused just yet.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo